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Let me provide one example from a local news:

"Essentially what happened is the state approved the same dollar amount it did last year for the supplemental general fund"

My thinking is, the above, as well generally, is incorrect b/c of the verb-agreement rules - and "what happened was" would be [more] correct, context depended obviously. However, based in somewhat equal google hits and in speech, I see a prevalent use of "what happened is..."

Please explain when it is correct and when it is NOT.

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

I assume OP is concerned that "is" sounds odd in the context of an event in the past, but there is nothing wrong with such usage. Using "is" arguably draws more attention to the fact that the description/explanation is being given now, but this is a fairly pointless fine distinction.

In short, "is/was" are both valid, just as either choice can optionally be followed by "that". These are stylistic variants; neither is more "correct", nor do they have any significant difference in meaning.

LATER: In the case of OP's specific sentence, the point made by @Chad is relevant. The reference to "last year" in a statement about annual funding, implies that "what happened" is still happening. This I think makes "is" the better choice.

Had it been "the previous year", in a statement talking about a funding approval made many years ago, I think I would probably expect "was".

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That was my thinking too, but why using "was" is correct? It doesn't seem to be an exception or an idiomatic usage. – crazyyyyyyyyy Jul 28 '11 at 14:06
@Fedor: As I said, both are "correct". In fact, "was" is more common, probably because some people want the tenses to agree, but that has no bearing on whether "is" is valid. See this NGram comparing the two usages. – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '11 at 14:11

I think it should be "Essentially, what happened is that the state....."

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I think this sounds more precise but less natural. – Chad Jul 28 '11 at 15:27
Maybe. It could be a British (me) vs American usage thing, but I'd always add the 'that' even when speaking informally – tinyd Jul 28 '11 at 15:42

Is is a appropriate so long as it still is. If it is no longer, then is is no longer appropriate and was is the correct choice. But if it was when it was said then is was correct then but now was is. (Thats some quality word nerd humor there)

Said in a less fun way so long as the state still has approved the same dollar amount as the year before then present tense is acceptable. A choice of was would infer that it is no longer the case. Particularly since I believe this refers to something the governor thinks was a mistake.

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+1 I don't think this constitutes a general rule, but it certainly has a strong bearing on the choice of tense. – FumbleFingers Aug 8 '11 at 14:36

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